Why Illini 2020 Signee Brandon Lieb Shouldn’t Be Compared To Nick Smith

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Brandon Lieb’s first and most important message to Illini fans who love to make comparisons to the past might be: please don’t.

Brandon Lieb may very well be a 7-foot, skinny prospect that’ll need time to develop his body and skills for the rigors of Big Ten Conference play. However, Illinois basketball fans shouldn’t point to the tallest player in program history and assume they’ve seen before what Lieb is about to hopefully provide the Illini and head coach Brad Underwood. Brandon Lieb is not Nick Smith. The comparison doesn’t fit on and off the court.

Smith, who stood 7-foot-2 and 240 pounds when he arrived at Illinois, had very little interest in being a true ‘5’ man post and was seen more outside the three-point arc (where he shot 17 of 51 for his career on three-point attempts) than Lieb likely ever will.

“The one thing about (Lieb) is he’s probably more of a back-to-the-basket guy than either (former Illini forward) Mike Tisdale or Nick Smith ever were,” Orangeandblue.com/Rivals.com basketball recruiting analyst Brad Sturdy said. “(Lieb) likes playing inside and already has good post moves going right or left. (Lieb) is very willing to be a (center) and I always thought Nick Smith was a (small forward) trapped inside a center’s body.”

Lieb, the newest signee of the Illini’s 2020 recruiting class wants to get physical and play in the paint. Before the COVID-19 epidemic shut down all high school basketball in the state of Illinois, Lieb averaged 13.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in his senior year at Deerfield.

“I’m familiar with (Brad Underwood’s) style and I’ve had many coaches in my life that have helped my game mature and get better,” Lieb said. “I wouldn’t say my AAU coach (Mike Mullins, who is the father of Southern Illinois head coach Bryan Mullins) is the exact same as Coach Underwood but they’re similar in what they demand for their players and the intensity they want you to have for the game.”

Lieb, who says he grew up an in-state product that was a fan of the Illini program who would attend games with his family at the then-called Assembly Hall, knows the special nature of being able to run out of the tunnel at State Farm Center and has dreamed of one day playing on that court. Smith, who averaged 25 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks as a senior as a senior at Bloomingdale High School outside of Tampa, was constantly seen as a puzzle on and off the basketball court. On the court, Smith was always better known for his passing ability, free-throw shooting and perimeter skills than being physical near the basket.

Lieb says his first and most important point of emphasis when he arrives at Illinois will be getting very familiar with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher. Fletcher has already been lauded for his ability to transform Kofi Cockburn from a perceived lazy, overweight center with tons of potential to the physically chiseled 290-pound specimen who took home the 2020 Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Year honor. Fletcher is known for getting muscle and strength on Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk’s body despite the Belgiun native being in a walking boot for most of the 2019-20 season with a foot injury. Lieb can’t wait to turn his 210-pound frame into something that can withstand highly-recruited centers in the Big Ten.

7-foot 2020 prospect Brandon Lieb signed his National Letter-of-Intent on June 27, one day after verbally committing to Brad Underwood's program. Photo Provided by University of Illinois athletics department/FightingIllini.com

“I think, no doubt, that physical strength and being able to put on weight will be huge for me,” Lieb said. “I really believe in buy into the idea that doing that will translate toward a lot of different areas on the court. Coach Fletcher was somebody who was on my Zoom (meeting with the Illini coaches) and I really enjoyed talking with him. His knowledge will be so key and he understands that specific people need specific workouts for their different bodies. All the coaches kept saying and joking that I’ll be best buddies with him.”

On and off the court, Smith was seen as mercurial and aloof with what former Illinois head coach Bruce Weber was quoted as saying “the worst body language” he’s ever seen in his coaching career. Smith threw towels in disgust from the bench and during a 58-54 home loss against Purdue he refused to join a team huddle after Weber substituted for him. Coming from Florida, Nick Smith initially considered Illinois just a university. However, Smith's career ended with him being a critical reserve piece to the 2004-05 Illini team that was ranked No. 1 nearly the entire season and advanced to the national championship game. 

Don’t expect to Lieb to be anything but the best teammate while playing for the fiery Underwood. He already appreciates the opportunity being given to him to play at his “dream school”.

“He has a strong work ethic and is motivated to be part of our player development program, where he will add strength and weight to his frame,” Underwood said after Lieb signed his National Letter-of-Intent on June 27. “Brandon is also a tremendous student who will excel at the University of Illinois. We feel fortunate to add to our 2020 class someone with both the athletic and academic caliber of Brandon Lieb, and are pleased to welcome him to the Fighting Illini family."